Preview for Santa Fe Nutcracker Performances, expanded from the preview published in SF New Mexican’s Pasatiempo, 12/11/09

The spine cracked on my old copy of the E.T.A. Hoffman short story, “The Nutcracker,” as I opened the yellowed pages to read at nap time to my three year old grandson. Even without illustrations, so fascinated by the story was Enrique that his eyelids didn’t begin to flutter for three quarters of an hour, and I was hooked on E.T.A. too.

Would any of  this month’s upcoming local Nutcracker dance productions (Moving People Dance, Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, and National Dance Institute’s Nutcracker excerpts contain the dark portions of ETA’s story? None of the half dozen (and counting) danced versions of this tale.

I’ve so far attended in previous years and other cities, was as creepy as Hoffman’s story: a sinister, old godfather, Herr Drosselmeier, who seduces the young hero, Maria, with fantasy stories, then humiliates her when she believes the fantasies; or, for gross visuals, a son of the mouse queen has seven heads. Not even Mikhail Baryshnikov’s version for American Ballet Theatre, which closely follows the Hoffman storyline, makes the production identical in its darkness.

Dance productions cannot spare the time for Hoffman’s complicated literary transformations (from lovely princess infant to grotesque melon-head baby), curses (a Mouse Queen who pledges to return and bite off the head of the royal baby) and bad and good magic (the prince, transformed into a nutcracker, accidentally kills the mouse queen while undoing the spell on the infant princess, and later returns to his former princely self.)

Nor does any version I’ve seen allow Marie to remain with a romantic and magic conclusion.  In Hoffman’s original tale, Marie leaves her family to return as Queen with the prince-as-King to reign together and forever from Marzipan Castle in Sweetmeatburgh.  How closely will two of this month’s dancing Nutcracker productions incorporate Hoffman’s the original script?

Only positive magic emanates from the Moving People Dance production. Layla Amis, Executive Director of Moving People Dance (MPD), and Curtis Uhlemann,  Artistic Director, Costume Design and Construction, co-direct, this the tenth and last year of their magical and contemporary Nutcracker, “Swingin’ Suites.”  Music includes brief selections from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet score, but MPD selects most of  the music from the jazz of Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn and Glenn Miller.  The production was conceived and produced ten years ago by Amis, Ronn Stewart, now Director Emeritus, and Jose’ Luis Moncada, with choreography by Stewart, Amis, Echo Gustafson, Uhlemann, Erica Gionfriddo, Lori Brody, Rulan Tangen, Christin Severini and Mike Garcia.  Charles Gamble narrates the tale.  The MPD school’s instructors dance the adult roles; as with most productions of this standard, nearly all of a school’s students have the opportunity to perform at least once, since the concert is often given three times.

The Swingin’ Sweets story begins in the mid-1800’s, at the Montoya family’s holiday party in the territory of New Mexico, replacing the German, Stahlbaum family. The heroine is Maria Montoya.  Maria’s eccentric aunt, Drosselda arrives with magical gifts, instructions in swing dance, and time traveling powers–no scary Herr Drosselmeier. After Maria and her aunt sample the surprises in The Land of Swingin’ Sweets, they travel on to arrive in the 1940’s, where the same Land of Sweets is being invaded by gangster rats. Of course the aunt’s good magic powers help save the magical place.  Oh, there is no prince.  The conclusion brings Maria home, to continue swing dancing with the cast.  No hint of a dark side here.

Uhlemann promises a new production next holiday season, with live music and theater, based on traditions that exist in Northern New Mexico, created when the toothaches abate and blood sugar levels equilibrate in January.

National Dance Institute’s Vladimir Stadnik, directs this year’s “Nutcracker,” a twenty minute portion NDI’s “Home for the Holidays” production. I  interviewed Stadnik by phone from NDI-Albuquerque, and NDI-Santa Fe.  He’s both Associate Artistic Director of NDI in Albuquerque and Coordinator of Ballet for Santa Fe NDI’s School for Performing Arts.

He described a cheery menu of “Nutcracker” excerpts, devoid of the wooden man-turned-prince that gave the ballet its name–no nutcracker, no mice and no fighting!  Instead, Stadnik opts for snippets of the ballet’s themes that he has newly choreographed for NDI’s youngsters and teens. The Sugar Plum Fairies dance remains the only classical ballet from old Russian versions.  The “Holidays” program also contains carols, tap dancing, and other entertainments.

Portions of “The Nutcracker” to be danced at NDI’s Dance Barn include a young Clara who, on Christmas, wakes up to see huge boxes, five feet tall, that contain the dancing presents.  Stadnik says the only character presented as human is Clara. The “toys” that emerge from their wrappings include three Sugar Plum Fairies, three Russian Dancers, one Arabian harem dancer with three schleppers (the males who carry her around), two Chinese girls who struggle over a teacup, and a duet which contains a minuet and gavotte folded into a French masquerade theme.

Good magic also forms the core of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet’s (ASFB) classical ballet “Nutcracker,” as created by Jean-Philippe Malaty and Tom Mossbrucker, Executive Director and Artistic Director, respectively, of ASFB’s professional company.  In a phone interview with Malaty, during a break from rehearsing Fayetteville, Arkansa’s local cast of children and the professional company for that city’s first ASFB “Nutcracker,” Malaty spoke of a circus theme, clowns, and a faster-than-the-usual “Nutcracker” pace attending their production, as well as an emphasis on cinematic style, where more than one scene is always on stage, layered to keep children’s attention.

An avuncular Drosselmeier accompanies Clara through the story, and engages her in the ETA Hoffman tale, in the form of a giant, onstage book.  Instead of Clara going to the land of the Sweets, she goes to a  fair and sits on a carousel while watching the entertainments.  This is the land of healthy snacks, it seems, with not all the traditional sweets dances, but other entertaining dances added. At its conclusion, Clara closes the giant book.  The taped music is the Tchaikovsky score with some cuts and some enhancements, like more cannons.

Gisela Genschow, Director of the local School of Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, prepares her students for the production. She elaborated the philosophy of ASFB, saying that there’s enough darkness in the world and that they don’t want to scare their audience, so their Drosselmeier is “a little in his own world and not too boisterous,” but leads the production.  She explained that each city (Santa Fe, Aspen, Fayetteville) engages the children from its local dance school for the The Nutcracker’s” youngster’s roles, with different children cast for each performance, so that all students have a chance to perform.  The ASFB’s professional company dances the adult roles, with a few dancers hired just for these performances–a traditional Chinese dancer to perform her ethnic ribbon dance, a Russian couple, a trapeze artist, and a Drosselmeier.  But not a dark Drosselmeier.

Malaty stressed, “…no curses, no evil and good, just the dream of a little girl.” True, though, Clara seizes a sword, kills the Rat King, and looking quite distressed, is comforted by Drosselmeier.  Still, he continued, “If there’s a message, it’s about harmony and diversity, a community unified through the common language of dance.”

E.T.A Hoffman and His Legacy

Though darkness is banished  for a winter weekend of jolly entertainment, heavy hitters in the child development field urge parents to prepare their children to live meaningful lives and know that they can deal with the inevitable troubles that every human encounters in a lifetime.

E.T.A. Hoffman had not intended his work to be read to, or by children, when he wrote “The Nutcracker” in 19th century Germany, though the work is about children and magical happenings.  He’s credited with initiating the genre of horror and fantasy fiction.  Hoffman’s creative work influenced  major explorers of humanity’s psychic interiors, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, as well as the writer and poet, Edgar Allan Poe.  The ripple effect of Hoffman’s dark creativity hasn’t ceased.

Marie-Louise von Frantz, an early twentieth century disciple of Jung, became fascinated with fairytales as well.  She writes that a fairytale hero cannot be compared to a human being, who might have doubts and a range of feelings and have a change of heart by the end of a mythic story. Instead, von Frantz describes a fairytale hero as representing what Jung named an archetype, an aspect of the self concerned with building character; we see the Nutcracker as an archetype that displays a pattern for the right kind of behavior.  The Nutcracker in Hoffman’s tale, for instance, rescues Marie from the threats and attacks of the seven-headed son of the mouse queen, and Marie saves the Nutcracker’s life by pitching a fatal blow at the seven-headed son with her shoe, both youngsters showing traits of heroism.  Where does redemption enter the picture?

In Hoffman’s “Nutcracker,” redemption is what happens when someone has been cursed or bewitched through certain happenings or events and is redeemed by the action of a hero who noodles about until finally discovering how to remove the curse.  When Marie declares her commitment to the Nutcracker, saying that even though he’s a wooden man, she’ll love him forever, she redeems the toy.  He transforms into a prince who takes her to a delicious place where they reign forever, where as Hoffman ends the tale, “…the most wonderful and beautiful things of every kind–are to be seen–by those who have eyes to see them.”

Santa Fe Jungian analyst, Jerome Bernstein, spoke by phone about the importance of redemption in relationships, in order to live lives of meaning:  children can learn from adults they trust about compassion, empathy and commitment to struggle, if the relationship is one they value. Then, they can apply those skills to “… the (dark) world they live in. they know the dark side is there; they experience it in night terrors or in their imaginations.  These stories prepare them psychically for what they’ll be facing in their adult lives.”

Child and adult therapist Susan Bernstein uses Jungian concepts to help her young clients unpack their emotions.  By phone, Bernstein described how frightening information comes at children quickly, in fragmented largely visual and aural forms (newscasts, short internet videos, other children’s reports.) She stressed that children need help to form a coherent understanding of emotional life experiences of fear and danger, good and bad, tragedy, rescue, and recovery, as found in old written myths. Bernstein said that they need a complete narrative in many full stories, in many forms, as von Frantz suggests. Bernstein finds fairytales and storytelling can be updated for contemporary youngsters with the likes of the Star Wars saga, which moves through the full cycle of experience, like the original Nutcracker.

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